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Why Does My Neck Feel Stiff and Achy in the Morning?

Why Does My Neck Feel Stiff and Achy in the Morning?

When you wake up, you want to feel refreshed and ready to tackle whatever’s on your to-do list. So, if the first thing you notice is a stiff neck, you know it will be a challenging day.

Dr. Dinash Yanamadula at Princeton Pain & Spine Institute in Lawrenceville and Edgewater, New Jersey, specializes in diagnosing and treating neck pain, so you can stop guessing at the reasons and start working toward a solution. 

Here, he explains the main culprits that cause morning-time neck pain and stiffness, ranging from muscle spasms to degenerative diseases, before honing in on the most common cause — your sleep position.

Muscle spasms

Muscle spasms, or involuntary contractions of your neck muscles, can attack while you sleep and lead to morning discomfort. These spasms could be due to overuse of the muscles, like when you’ve had a long day of physical work or when you’ve been stuck in a position that strains your neck for an extended period.

Compressed nerves

Your neck is a complex network of nerves, bones, and muscles, and sometimes, the nerves can become compressed or pinched, causing pain and stiffness. Poor posture, herniated discs, and osteoarthritis are prime reasons for a compressed nerve.

Autoimmune diseases

Certain autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, can also cause neck pain and stiffness because they involve chronic inflammation that affects the joints in your neck.

Degenerative diseases

Osteoarthritis pops up twice on our list of potential culprits because it’s degenerative. Osteoarthritis wears down your neck’s joints, causing pain and stiffness, especially after periods of inactivity, like sleep.

The most common culprit is your sleep position

While all the above factors can contribute to morning neck pain, the cause we identify most often is the wrong sleep position. Inadequate support while you sleep can lead to muscle strain and pressure on the nerves and joints in your neck.

For example, if you’re a stomach sleeper, your body position forces your neck to twist to one side, and voila, your neck is stiff and painful in the morning. Similarly, sleeping with a pillow that’s too high, too low, too soft, or too firm can misalign your neck with the rest of your spine.

To avoid waking up with a stiff neck, try to sleep on your back or side with a pillow that supports the natural curve of your neck. Consider investing in an orthopedic pillow designed to provide optimal support for your neck and head.

Important note: If you don’t resolve the pain, your neck stiffness can wreck your sleep and turn your problem into a downward health spiral. About 70% of people with neck pain don’t get the restorative quality sleep their bodies need for a strong immune system, heart health, and mental wellness. 

How to relieve a stiff, achy neck in the morning

Waking up with a stiff, achy neck puts a damper on the whole day, so you need relief quickly. Here are several strategies Dr. Yanamadula recommends. 

Massage away muscle tension

A gentle massage can do wonders for relieving muscle tension in your neck. Use your fingers to gently knead the muscles along your neck, focusing on areas that feel tight or painful. 

If self-massage doesn’t do it, Dr. Yanamadula may recommend working with Dr. Christine Savela, our experienced physical therapist who specializes in neck and shoulder pain.

Restore blood flow

Some neck pain stems from constricted muscles and vessels that prevent oxygen from reaching the area. Restoring blood flow to your neck can help alleviate stiffness and pain. 

Heat therapy is a simple way to do this. Apply a warm compress or heating pad to your neck for 15-20 minutes at a time. The warmth will stimulate blood flow, promoting healing and relaxation in the affected muscles.

Stretch to increase your range of motion

Stretching helps your neck stay limber, so careful stretches can help increase your range of motion. Here’s a simple stretch you can try: Slowly tilt your head toward one shoulder, aiming to touch your ear to your shoulder until you feel a slight stretch along the side of your neck. Hold for a few seconds, then repeat on the other side.

Reduce inflammation

Inflammation is notorious for causing stiffness and pain. 

Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen reduce inflammation and relieve pain. 

Minimize stress

Stress often manifests physically, and its favorite spot is in your neck. Fortunately, deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can reduce stress and promote relaxation, potentially alleviating neck stiffness and pain.

If your neck pain persists despite these measures, consult Dr. Yanamadula to rule out any severe underlying conditions. Request an appointment online or call Princeton Pain & Spine Institute today. 

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